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Q: Imagine my surprise when I recently paid a $7 co-pay for a prescription at Rite Aid using my Medicare Part D supplemental insurance only to discover the exact same med at Walmart, also out-of-pocket but with no insurance coverage, for only $4. What gives and how can I save much-needed monthly funds? — Sarah Senior

Dear Ms. Senior: In these days of big drugstore mergers, your "what gives?" is surely a legitimate query. The latest news tells us that Walgreens (America's largest drugstore chain) is trying to merge with Rite Aid (the third biggest) which follows on the heels of CVS' (number two chain) recent buyout of all Target's pharmacies. Certainly pros and cons need consideration for the prescription-buying public, now and in the future.

While these combos transform existing drugstores into full-fledged medical providers, they do more than give shareholders and owners more money. The acquisitions and mergers also can mean huge buying power and the ability to negotiate lower prices which, benefits consumers. Even big discount pharmacies like Costco or Walmart offer savings, particularly with respect to older generic drugs (hence, the $3 "savings" questioned by Ms. Senior).

This could be a win or loss for local mom and pop drugstores. According to publicopinion.com, small pharmacies may initially gain more business as the dust settles with the mega mergers. But the Walgreens-Rite Aid alliance could eventually mean more competitive prices on services and products for consumers. It could mean more clinics in the Rite Aid stores with an expanded selection of health and wellness products such as vitamins.

Other reports suggest that the deal would not lighten consumers' wallets, and the combined company could mean fewer brands from which to select. Fewer companies mean less negotiation with PBM (Pharmacy Benefits Managers) and pharmaceutical companies (the latter sometimes eats us alive as it is). Think of airline mergers, for example: less competition equals higher airfare.

The chains have been competing neck and neck with big-box retailers such as Target and Walmart that have expanded their services to in-store pharmacies. In fact, below-insurance payment on these types of medications is the way many larger pharmacies, especially the member clubs, pull folks in their front doors. Too, the companies realize how many folks are not insured and they figure financial assistance with meds eases the way to customers buying other products while in store. Moreover, whether member club pharmacies or larger major chains, they all provide simplicity by maintaining your medication records are always available, no matter the location of the store. Even better, because of such a high volume of business, chains often carry less commonly prescribed drugs so we don't have to wait for an order to come in like we often must do with smaller independent pharmacies.

Tax Tip: The American Opportunity Tax Credit is a wonderful qualifier for kids in college. Higher education expenses can be lessened with up a $2,500 credit. If the student is, instead, enrolled in graduate or professional studies, request the Lifetime Learning Credit, which offers up to $2K for courses and/or fees. Just don't forget a real no-no: don't claim more than one tax credit for the same student in the same year or you may get a visit from a Big Bad IRS Agent.

Contact Ellen Phillips at consumerwatch@timesfreepress.com

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